The first thing I was told is that I would get muddy, and to bring a change of clothes for the trip back to my hotel.
That turned out not to be necessary. Luckily, it had not rained for several days, so unless I roared through standing water on the rutted dirt trails, not much mud got kicked up. Still, there was enough to polka-dot my pants, shirt, sunglasses, and even my camera, which I had the good sense to double-wrap inside a zipper plastic bag inside a backpack, placed on the floor of the backseat.
I was on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in southern West Virginia, named for the multi-generation murderous feud between two neighboring and inter-married families that many of us studied in grade school.
It’s the largest ATV and UTV trail system in the East, maybe even the entire USA, with more than 1,000 miles of dirt paths carved out of the mountainside as far back as the mid-1800s, by coal miners and loggers.
I was driving a brand new, lime green, four-person Kawasaki Teryx 750, which is powerful, easy to drive, and instantly responsive. It’s quite the investment — it clocks in at $15,199 — but if you’re an avid off-roader, you might just find it worth the cost.
I rented it for the day from Twin Hollow Cabins and Campgrounds in Gilbert, W. Va, which has hundreds of rentals of various brands and sizes, in addition to the cabins and campsites and free shower facilities for campers and day-riders like me.
Twin Hollow adjoins the Hatfield-MCoy system, which is so huge that it is divided into sections, called Rockhouse Trails, Buffalo Mountain Trails, and Devil Anse Trails. That one is named for William Anderson Hatfield, whose nickname was Anse. He’s the one who started the family feud. When in-law Randolph McCoy called him a devil, the nickname Devil Anse stuck.
The Hatfield family cemetery was one of our stops. It’s up a steep hill – walking only – in Omar, W. Va. His grave is marked by an obelisk worthy of a war hero of one of the USA’s many wars, from Revolutionary to Afghanistan. It is surrounded by the graves of family members who fought in those wars and who actually deserve a hero’s obelisk.
All the trails are rated beginner, intermediate, advanced, and another best described as you-have-to-be-kidding, similar to the green, blue, black and double-black ratings at ski/snowboard resorts. Even though we were on greens and blues exclusively, there were a couple of three-point turns with a steep-fall off to one side that kicked up my adrenalin.
My guide was Cameron Ellis, whose father and grandfather were coal miners here. These days, his dad owns Twin Hollow, his mother runs the office, and he owns the rental franchise and a nearby motel.
“World War II was won with coal from West Virginia and Virginia,” he told me – proudly – at one of our stops, a waterfall where coal was once augured and washed. Now, it’s a popular photo stop for selfies with the trail vehicles.
We stopped for lunch inches from the trail at Keith’s, in the town of Man. It’s an old-fashioned roadhouse, with dollar bills pasted on the ceiling, country music on the jukebox, banners supporting the Man Hillbillies high school sports teams, and a parking lot shared by pick-ups, ATVs and UTVs.
I couldn’t resist the Outlaw Burger with sweet potato fries, fried pickles and a local microbrew.
If you think you can go it alone, think again.
Even though trails are well-marked, they are not marked well enough to follow one that includes getting you back to home base.
When I asked Ellis to review the trails on our five-hours of driving, he zipped off that we were on 312 to 37 to 17 to 19 to 30 to 34 to 33 to 13 to 18 to 40 to 23. I had been concentrating so much on the road in front of my mud-splattered windshield that I missed most of those markers.
In other words, if you go, either go with friends who know every inch of the system and you can follow them back to base, or book a guide. Otherwise, you could get lost in the woods. Since there’s not much GPS or online service in these backwoods, you could be lost for a while.
Solo visitors require a permit. A day pass is included in a rental, with or without a guide.
The best time to visit is Spring to Fall, although Ellis tells me that many off-roaders prefer winter. “Snow makes for a smoother ride,” he says.